NORTH KOHALA — More than 50 Kohala High School (KHS) students, divided among four agriculture-related classes, learn how to plant and grow produce weekly on the school’s 5-acre farm.
On Tuesday, they worked in teams of two to plant 50 new tropical fruit trees at the farm donated by The Fruit Tree Planting Foundation (FTPF) — an international nonprofit organization based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania that opened a branch in Puna three years ago.
KHS was the sixth school on Hawaii Island gifted fruit trees last month, as a part of FTPF’s “Fruit Tree 101” program. Varieties planted in Kohala ranged from citrus to avocado, breadfruit, starfruit, jaboticaba and mountain apple.
Since it was launched in 2005, the program has been implemented at schools and communities all over the world. After the first planting in San Diego, tens of thousands of trees have been donated at schools and communities in many other U.S. cities and countries including Brazil, El Salvador, Guatemala, Kenya, Uganda, South Africa and India.
This year alone, FTPF has planted and distributed more than 65,000 fruit trees in six countries. Next year that number will most likely jump to 85,000 trees, according to their Co-Creator Cem Akin.
FTPF’s primary mission “is to plant and help others plant a collective total of 18 billion fruit trees across the world (approximately three for every person alive) and encourage their growth under organic standards,” it states on their website.
“There’s a beauty and elegance planting a fruit tree because it addresses the world’s key problems — global hunger and climate change — and brings communities together. Rather than setting up three different charities, we do it all,” Akin said. “Hawaii is one of the best places in the world to plant fruit trees. They thrive and the communities and schools appreciate them.”
One of the things that attracted FTPF to KHS was that fruit grown on campus is used directly in the school cafeteria.
Just a year-and-a half ago, KHS’ school farm was a far cry from what it is today, prompting the Hawaii Institute of Pacific Agriculture — better known as HIP Ag — to step in as a partner.
“Kohala High’s farm and buildings were overgrown with plants and bushes,” Dash Kuhr said, HIP Ag’s owner said. “Our organization has been super involved with the (state’s) Farm to School pilot program since last year. We’re currently the only distributor in Kohala that’s supplying the cafeteria.”
Because of that involvement, HIP Ag knew which produce the cafeteria staff wanted and needed and found a way to finance it.
“Our director of development, Lauren, came across the FTPF grant proposal and applied for it. She asked how many trees we wanted and I was like, 50 or 100. We know they love tangelos and navel oranges, so we’re putting a bunch of stuff (on the farm) we know they will utilize. Fresh fruits are low hanging fruit and easy for them to use.”
He continued, “We’re super enthused to have linked up with The Fruit Tree Planting Foundation and that they selected us. It was a good fit.”
The four KHS ag classes taught by HIP staff are “Natural Resources,” “Natural Resources Business,” “IT” and “Environmental Science.” In addition, students are involved in the care of the trees from the ground up — planting, watering, fertilization, pruning and harvesting the fruit.
“We’re teaching them all aspects of crop production, from seeding to transplants, field prep and processing,” Kuhr said.
Sophomore Zhane Ellazar learned last year how to grow kalo, bananas, and sweet potatoes in his ag class. At Tuesday’s planting, he helped plant multiple orange trees.
“I know now about nature and how to plant things,” he said. “My favorite produce we grew last year was bananas, which we used to make banana lumpia.”
Ellazar said one day he might want to be a farmer.
“This year is the first year the farm program has been fully integrated,” KHS principal Janette Snelling said. “HIP Ag staff are almost full-time for all of our classes. There’s a real opportunity for true partnerships. We’re all working in one coordinated effort.”
The grant was made possible through financial support from the William J. and Dorothy K. O’Neill Foundation, based in Cleveland, Ohio. The foundation specifically selects family health-related programs to fund.
Beyond donating the trees, FTPF provides lessons on the importance of trees for the environment and workshops on tree care as part of the collaborative effort.
“Here, you have the school, HIP Ag, The Fruit Tree Planting Foundation and the O’Neill Foundation. The most successful projects are the ones that have the most collaboration, so we think this orchard has a fruitful future,” Akin said.
The September project is the launch of a set of future projects FTPF intends to do every six to eight months on the Big Island.
“This is furthering the whole agricultural mission. It’s rekindling interest for the future, getting the next generation to see the value in trees and the self-pride in planting something that will be here for generations to come,” District 9 Councilman Tim Richards said at the planting Tuesday. “Now things are really blossoming for the farm to plate initiative. It’s about feeding ourselves — one of the important life lessons.”
The Fruit Tree Planting Foundation is currently accepting applications from schools, food banks, communities and families for future gifting.
To apply for an FTPF orchard: Go to www.ftpf.org/apply.htm